As in most professions, gender equality — as it manifests in sexism, promotions and pay — has been a challenge for women in the sports industry. Tennis is no different. Though equal pay isn’t the prominent issue in the tennis world anymore, thanks to the decades-long campaign by top women tennis stars, disparities still lie within coaching positions, especially on a national scale. For example, only five of the world’s top 100 women singles players have female coaches. Finest Intensive Tennis Training (FITT) Academy at Cypress Lake, Madison-based and black owned tennis company, helps catapult women tennis professionals into leadership roles.

Kristen Eley, 26-year-old tennis professional and coach at FITT Academy, recently spoke with reporter Aallyah Wright about her passion for playing tennis competitively and how it was the cornerstone for her successful coaching career in a male-dominated industry. After joining a high school team in 7th grade, she walked-on to Mississippi State’s team and earned a scholarship. An early but severe foot injury caused her to lose her spot and scholarship, but she transferred to Itawamba Community College where she helped the team win state and regionals, and eventually place in the national championship. Editor’s note: Interview edited for length.

Mississippi Today: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you get into playing tennis? Were you always interested in it?

Kristen Eley: I started playing tennis in Jackson and that’s where I met Coach Art (Arthur Jones III, owner of FITT Academy) at about 8 or 9-years-old. I played basketball, soccer, softball, and I enjoyed being outside and enjoyed playing outside. My dad was an athlete and played professional football … sports ran in my family. Once I played tennis, I couldn’t put that racket down and Coach Art sparked that love for me. He was my first coach and I was his first student. I got my entire family playing (tennis). My mom got interested, my brother, my dad. After a while, my brother and dad put the racket down. Tennis has always been like a love for me and a necessity. That’s kind of the short story about how I started playing. 

After Itawamba, I went back to Mississippi State to attempt to finish my degree. Once I realized that wasn’t working, I reconnected with Coach Art, and he said, ‘Why don’t you teach tennis?’ I was like, ‘I’ve never been much of a teacher.’ It wasn’t my thing at first initially. I started working with children in the area … I started having a love for it and seeing the look on students’ faces when they hit a tennis ball over an artificial net and accomplish their goals — that was more satisfying than playing competitively. These students were not that athletic … Most of my students are (between the ages of) four and thirteen. I have adults and teenagers, my niche is beginner tennis. I would say I teach about 30 and 40 students that I see maybe once or more a week.

Mississippi Today: So how would you describe your leadership?

Kristen Eley: I will say it is strenuous (and) you have to be very attentive. But also I would say it’s fulfilling. It’s definitely tough. If I didn’t love the sport, there would be no way I would be out here teaching. I am also aware kids just teach you a lot. They look up to you … I don’t see myself as an adult but they do … so I had to be more aware because they watch my every move. It’s fulfilling when they are able to look up to you and get something accomplished. Coaching does sound fun because it is fun, but the leadership role is very time demanding.

Mississippi Today: Across the board, women are underrepresented in the sports world. It seems you are of the small percentage of women who are dominating in a coaching position in Mississippi. How does that make you feel to know you’re beating the status quo?

Kristen Eley: It’s very satisfying. I love it and I never saw it as that until recently. I saw it as just playing and teaching tennis and doing what I love and getting other people to see why I love it, which is really my only focus. It’s just once you see the glow on any beginner’s face — it could be a 40-year-old beginner — but see their face light up … tennis is an individual sport and you’re out there on your own. If you win or lose it’s on you. It’s like an art and craft and that’s all I thought about when I started teaching tennis. When I turned it into a business, my goal was the same. It was more so like baby steps. I never see the grand scheme of things, it was how do I get kids out here. Once I took a step back, and saw it actually doesn’t happen at all, I realized I’m a unicorn so to speak.

Mississippi Today: I can remember as a young girl, I remember seeing Venus and Serena as Black women playing this sport. I didn’t have much exposure to it, so that’s maybe why I didn’t get involved, but representation matters. I can only remember those two as Black women who played on a national scale.

Kristen Eley: Serena and Venus were my idols and looked like me and were the best. It grew the love I had, the love I already had and Coach Art did that to me. He was passionate about teaching me and made me more passionate and I want that passion for most people. I always say tennis is the best sport ever and it makes you have to figure it out on your own. I think being able to manage that and understand the sports side transferred over to my lifestyle and helped me to say, ‘OK, you’re gonna have to build this yourself and find a way to make it happen.’ Even with you saying (I’m beating the statistics), it’s still shocking. If someone told me I was going to manage a business, and do this with the clinics, I wouldn’t believe it. I am very grateful and it’s humbling.

Mississippi Today: What is your advice to the young Black girl who may want to be a tennis pro one day but doesn’t see herself in the industry?

Kristen Eley: I would say to the young Black girl, keep your passion. Follow your passion and keep your passion. If you’re passionate about it, nothing else even matters. When I started teaching, I taught tennis for a year, pro bono. I didn’t really charge anybody. I was out here teaching all the time. I wasn’t making a dime. I would be exhausted and dog-tired and get up the next day. If that Black girl is passionate about being a tennis pro, it’ll never feel like she’s working.

This Q&A appeared in the round-up section of our monthly women and girls newsletter, The Inform[H]er.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.